In 1993, IBM was a company teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The once mighty technology giant had lost its way and, to many, its survival was in doubt.
In a last-ditch attempt to breathe life back into the moribund organization, the Board of Directors brought Lou Gerstner in as chairman and CEO.
Today he is widely credited as being the man who saved IBM.
He has often spoken of the role that culture plays in an organization. He said, “The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything. It took me to age fifty-five to figure that out. I always viewed culture as one of those things you talked about, like marketing and advertising. It was one of the tools that a manager had at his or her disposal when you think about an enterprise.”
Culture is the foundation upon which organizations are built and getting the culture right is increasingly becoming the focus of enlightened CEOs and executives.
So, what is culture? Culture simply means this is how we do things around here. It defines what is acceptable and acknowledges what we repeatedly do.
For decades starched white shirts were the IBM cultural norm.
Culture exists not only in organizations but in our personal lives as well. For example, the cultural norm in some families may be to gather around the table and eat dinner each day together. In other families, it is normal to eat dinner in the den while watching TV and in other families, dinner is something that is eaten in out of a Tupperware container on the way to soccer practice.
What we frequently refer to as habits in our home and personal lives is essentially culture in the workplace.
The more time I spend coaching clients in the corporate world, the more I am convinced that Lou Gerstner’s comment about culture being everything is bang on.
I have repeatedly witnessed months of intricate planning and brilliant strategies failing to produce the expected results for the simple reason that the prevailing organizational culture does not support the required behaviours necessary for the strategies to succeed.
I have also witnessed critical initiatives being openly sabotaged by a culture that was change-resistant and closed to new possibilities.
The undeniable truth about organizational culture is that it cannot be mandated, it can only be modelled. If those responsible for setting the culture in an organization do not epitomize every aspect of the culture, inevitably a series of separate cultures take form at different levels throughout the group potentially undermining the goals of the organization.
Culture is always either established by intent or by default. Trust me, you do not want to work in a culture of default. Intent is not only the better option, it should be the only option!
A recent news story about culture caught my attention. In my hometown of Calgary, our local police service has recently received much public criticism from whistleblowers who have come forward to report a culture of on-going bullying and harassment.
One of the local TV stations sought an opinion from an expert on this matter; what she said shocked me. She explained to the reporter that there is no quick solution to the problem facing the police service as “this culture has existed for many years and it will take many more years for it to change.”
My corporate work is almost exclusively centred around guiding clients to develop and implement new cultural norms within companies. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly culture changes when specific behaviours are both modelled and championed by those at the top of the house.
And the new culture remains only as long as those very people continue to model it.
If your organization appears to be floundering, staid or dormant, I can almost guarantee the solution will not be found by implementing a new business process and practice, but in evolving your existing culture.
Culture change is not for the faint of heart or those who are not prepared to do the work. However, as IBM demonstrated it is not only doable, it is essential if you want your organization to survive and thrive.
And doesn’t every organization wants to survive and thrive?
Till we read again.